Whether it’s artistic history or Hollywood heritage you're looking for, these historic hotels in Italy are just one of many reasons to visit the Amalfi Coast. Step ashore and discover six diverse – but equally indulgent – takes on the good life, in the form of the region's best luxury hotels.
La Dolce Vita: The Best Hotels on the Amalfi Coast
The pink hued walls of the Palazzo Avino are the result of a 12th century game of one-upmanship as affluent residents – involved in the flourishing maritime trade between Italy and the East – built grand palazzos to rival those in the wealthier, coastal town of Amalfi. Nowadays, sitting in the elevated town of Ravello with its vaulted hallways, flower-filled terraces and boundless views out across the Bay of Salerno, it still maintains a sense of superiority. This extends to its guests who share in a touch of smugness that they have opted for this quiet retreat over the summertime circus in the twisting seaside streets below.
The original Palazzo Sasso (as it was formerly known) was abandoned in 1758 and fell into ruin until the beginning of the 19th century when it was bought by the wealthy industrial Camera family who later turned it into a hotel. Some of its original rooms still remain, including the former chapel which now serves as a sumptuous entrance hall with marble geometric tiled floors.
Throughout its history the palazzo has welcomed its fair share of playwrights and novelists who took inspiration from Ravello’s cinematic landscape, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that it became a hideout for the Hollywood elite. Among its guests, actress Ingrid Bergman and director Roberto Rossellini were famously remembered giggling over dinner in the hotel restaurant at the time of their scandalous affair.
Despite its celebrity credentials the fairy-tale styled building was once again deserted in 1978. Today, Palazzo Avino is run by its namesake sisters Attilia and Mariella Avino whose father restored and reopened the hotel in 1997. Each room features handmade Vietri tiles and furniture from the 18th and 19th centuries, while marble pillars and gold adornments throughout capture the spirit of its Hollywood alumni. With just 33 rooms and 10 suites this grand hotel may be boutique in size and style, but it’s packed with five-star amenities including a spa, rooftop solarium, and a private beach club just a short, meandering drive down to the sea.
Dinner is served under the stars at the Lobster and Martini bar or at the hotel’s Michelin-star restaurant Rossellini’s, where guests can sample the best of Italian haute cuisine – including grilled scallops, homemade ravioli and Versuvio apricot sorbet - against the backdrop of the sparkling Mediterranean. At 350 metres above the sea, it’s the perfect vantage point for some modern-day one-upmanship spotting your superyacht in the bay below.
Hotel Santa Caterina
On a clifftop above the town of Amalfi, its winding paths to the Tyrrhenian Sea shaded by citrus groves and olive trees, Hotel Santa Caterina has been the pride of the Gambardella family for three generations. Opened in 1904, its grand white exterior hides a colourful history through which this Amalfi establishment has both survived and thrived.
During the 1920s the art nouveau villa was a favourite hangout of the British elite. As Mussolini’s power strengthened, the British disappeared and Crescenzo Gambardella ensured the hotel’s survival by running it as a soap factory. When war finally came, the hotel was occupied first by the Germans and latterly by British and American officers. Giusi Gambardella, who still oversees the running of the hotel with her sister, was born in 1945 and had a godfather who was an English army captain.
Since reopening in 1947 the hotel has continued to charm the great and the good. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton reportedly fell in love here in the 1960s and the spell continued for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie decades later. Today, in the lobby of exquisitely hand painted tiles, you are as likely to bump into an Italian politician as a Hollywood star.
Its location, with direct access by tender to its private beach club with heated saltwater pool, gives the property a nautical feel, with touches such as porthole windows in the luxurious bathrooms. “We take inspiration from boats,” says Giusi. “I see the hotel like a boat facing the sea.” From the beach club, walkways lead you through manicured gardens – dotted with sweet peas from Giusi’s annual visit to England – to the 66 rooms and suites and the vine covered restaurant. If the sharp incline up to the hotel is beyond you the hotel’s glass fronted lift will whisk you back up the cliffside.
Yet it’s the service that stands out. Staff remember guest names, take care of your itinerary, show that no request is too much trouble and generally replicate the experience enjoyed by the British aristocrats who discovered this gem nearly 100 years go.
Belmond Hotel Caruso
The verdant village of Ravello has long been a hideaway for the Amalfi elite, with its elevation providing welcome respite for wealthy traders from the coast. Nowadays Belmond Hotel Caruso’s terraced gardens and wisteria covered pathways are promenaded by camera-shy glitterati rather than exhausted merchants. “Ravello is a place to not be seen,” says guest relations manager Iolanda Mansi.
Sitting more than 350 metres above the sea, with panoramic views across the Bay of Salerno, the property was built as the Palazzo D’Afflitto during the 11th century by a Roman family who were forced to settle in Amalfi after a storm prevented their passage to Constantinople. After centuries of ruin and disrepair, in 1893 the vineyard owner Pantaleone Caruso opened the venue as a simple bed and breakfast, with five rebuilt bedrooms set amid the plunging gardens. Then hideaway was first discovered by a New York Times journalist in 1903. The review put it on the map for wealthy Americans and it also soon became a favourite of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group. After the Second World War Pantaleone’s sons continued to welcome exclusive guests. Nina Caruso famously once acted as a decoy, leading the press pack on a wild goose chase around Naples while Greta Garbo stayed – “to be alone”.
After a four-year restoration project, it reopened under the Belmond brand in 2005. The property is packed with memories of its aristocratic origins, with painstakingly restored frescoes – believed to date back to the 18th century – marble hallways, grand archways and sparkling chandeliers. There are plenty of modern touches too, such as the breathtaking infinity pool, where the concierge service will deliver an iPod loaded with your music. The Belvedere Terrace offers local specialities such as pasta with anchovies and Amalfi lemons, complemented by that plunging backdrop and the knowledge that you’re far too high up for the paparazzi to bag a decent shot.
Monastero Santa Rosa
“I was just taken by the structure. I loved the idea of rock coming out of rock,” says American Bianca Sharma of the first time she saw the 17th century monastery turned hotel perched on the edge of Conca dei Marini in 2000. She was so captivated by the building, which she spotted from a boat while holidaying near by, that the former Montessori teacher bought it and spent a decade transforming it into a 20 bedroom, adults only, luxury wonder.
Once a favourite lunch spot of Jackie Kennedy’s – she used to waterski below – the building has been lovingly restored by Sharma and local architect Francesco Avolio de Martino, maintaining the geometry of its interior while reimagining its lush terraces. With the layout unchanged, the rooms have been created out of nuns’ adjoining cells, while the communal areas have been converted into two enormous suites, the restaurant and bar.
The property is packed with ecclesiastical touches – the chiming monastery bell marks a guest’s arrival and the original confessional box, which adjoins the chapel, has been restored. As you wander the cool vaulted stone corridors you feel as if you can still hear the nuns’ footsteps – and their lingering presence is alluded to in a floating artwork, created by Avolio de Martino, and the “confession sheet” in place of the traditional comments form.
Despite this authenticity, guests are still cocooned in absolute luxury. At its heart lies a vast spa, which, in keeping with the theme, exclusively uses Santa Maria Novella products made by Florentine monks. In the evening chef Christoph Bob (recently awarded a Michelin Star) greets you at your table to create a bespoke menu, served on the suspended dining terrace – make sure you leave room for the sinful melt-in-the middle Amalfi lemon pudding.
Vibrant and unusual artwork pops out of every wall and crevice of this endlessly hip Capri institution. A short hop across from the Amalfi Coast, a string of artists in residence have left their marks on the property – Velasco designed the mosaic of the main pool, Giorgio Tonelli created two private pools, dedicated to Magritte and Warhol, while Fabrizio Plessi put in television monitors as art installations in an old wooden boat that used to take tourists to the nearby Blue Cave (and which now sits in the bar).
The list of celebrity guests who have wandered through the white and gold interiors in oversized sunglasses is equally impressive – from royals such as Princess Madeleine of Sweden and Caroline of Monaco to movie stars including Harrison Ford, Gwyneth Paltrow and Leonardo DiCaprio. “There is a very special relationship between Capri and the Palace because it houses artists and celebrities,” says Ermanno Zanini, managing director of the hotel’s group, Mytha Hotel Anthology. “Far from the crowds, the Capri Palace is a hideout.”
The island has welcomed Italy’s influencers since the days of Emperor Augustus but it was Tonino Cacace – who took over the property at the age of 22 after the death of his parents in 1975 – who raised the hotel’s status and put the town of Anacapri on the map. Its clinically modern Beauty Farm, home to the Leg School (to buff up your pins) is world renowned while the Palace’s main restaurant, L’Olivo, holds two Michelin stars and serves modern twists on Capri cuisine. Or you can be whisked down the hill to the Beach Club Il Riccio, where during the summer the jetty is jam-packed with superyacht tenders as guests pour in to sample its Michelin-starred menu.
“Positano bites deep. It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone,” author John Steinbeck wrote in a 1953 Harper’s Bazaar article, after retreating to the Sersale family’s Le Sirenuse to escape Rome’s summer heat.
The private summer residence was transformed into a hotel after the Second World War by the four aristocratic Neapolitan siblings, the Marchesi Aldo, Paolo, Anna and Franco. More than 60 years later little has changed – the oxblood coloured, 18th century villa still sits proudly on the cliffside with its petite balconies offering views across the azure sea and manager Antonio Sersale is as charming and as hardworking as his grandfather Franco.
Despite its luxurious reputation the property has held on to its homely roots, with simple, elegant rooms scattered with heirlooms. At the hotel’s heart lies a perfectly formed jewel of a pool, glinting with emerald green tiles and flanked by a siren mosaic.Boating has always been central to the town despite its lack of a harbour: in the 10th century it was an important trading centre, rivalling Venice, with locals hauling great galleys on to the beach. Today the bay bustles with superyachts in the summer and the hotel has its own 1972 Riva Aquarama.
Home to one of the best restaurants to visit while on a superyacht, the property’s gourmet offerings are equally stylish. The Michelin-starred La Sponda is lit by 400 candles, with starched tablecloths and 32 chefs, who can be viewed performing culinary miracles through a giant goldfish window in the kitchen. Alternatively, the champagne and oyster bar, which opened last summer, offers views to the sparkling lights of Positano.